Add Albuquerque, New Mexico’s to the growing list of VA hospitals accused of keeping secret waiting lists to hide delays for veterans seeking medical care. And it may already be too late to get to the truth and find out what harm, if any, was done to veterans there—VA officials are already destroying records to cover their tracks, a whistleblower inside the hospital tells The Daily Beast.
Last month, word broke that the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix kept a secret waiting list that allegedly led to dozens of preventable deaths. The VA’s inspector general was brought in to investigate the charges and hasn’t yet found any deaths in Phoenix linked to wait times, but his investigation is ongoing. Since then five other facilities have come under fire, leading to calls for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down. And now there’s Albuquerque’s. The evidence for this new secret list may be hard to track down, however.
“The ‘secret wait list’ for patient appointments is being either moved or was destroyed after what happened in Phoenix,” according to a doctor who works at the Albuquerque VA hospital and spoke exclusively with The Daily Beast. “Right now,” the doctor said, “there is an eight-month waiting list for patients to get ultrasounds of their hearts. Some patients have died before they got their studies. It is unknown why they died, some for cardiac reasons, some for other reasons.”
There’s no proof yet that veterans died while waiting for treatment, like what allegedly happened in Phoenix. But the doctor says it’s quite possible that some veterans would still be alive if they hadn’t been pushed through a record-keeping trap door that buried their requests for medical care.
On March 19, 2014, for example, a patient with a deteriorating heart condition requested to see a doctor. The patient was finally seen only days ago, on May 16, when they were admitted to the hospital for decompensated heart failure. “A near miss” as the VA doctor familiar with the case described it. “He could have died before being seen.”
The Albuquerque VA did not respond to requests for comment but Ozzie Garza, director of the VA Regional Office of Public Affairs, provided this statement to The Daily Beast: “We are not familiar with the allegations but will call immediately for an external review as we take all allegations seriously.”
“When everyone found out the IG was doing the audit, the word I heard was ‘Make sure nothing is left out in the open,’” the VA doctor said. “And that ranged from make sure there’s no food out to make sure there’s no information out in the open.” The doctor is not involved in the scheduling process and was unsure of how exactly VA officials would purge the secret wait lists but has heard it discussed among colleagues.
As VA officials reacted nervously to news of an impending audit, the doctor described hearing officials involved in scheduling patient appointments say, “The database had been removed or renamed.” To cover their tracks the doctor said they decided, “Instead of calling it a wait it would be called something like a precedence list.”
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